Sad news today as word has come that famed espionage author John le Carré, born David Cornwell, has passed away. He was 89.
The news was first shared by Jonny Geller, CEO of The Curtis Brown Group, le Carré’s literary agency, who said the author passed on December 12 after a short illness with pneumonia. “His like will never be seen again, and his loss will be felt by every book lover, everyone interested in the human condition. We have lost a great figure of English literature, a man of great wit, kindness, humour and intelligence. I have lost a friend, a mentor and an inspiration,” the agency said in a statement, which you can read in full here.
Le Carré’s family also shared a statement, saying “It is with great sadness that we must confirm that David Cornwell – John le Carré – passed away from pneumonia last Saturday night after a short battle with the illness. David is survived by his beloved wife of almost fifty years, Jane, and his sons Nicholas, Timothy, Stephen and Simon. We all grieve deeply his passing. Our thanks go to the wonderful NHS team at the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro for the care and compassion that he was shown throughout his stay. We know they share our sadness.”
With a career that would have spanned 60 years next year, le Carré redefined the espionage thriller genre. Before becoming a writer, Cornwell was recruited into MI5 before transferring to MI6, working in the Foreign Office in Germany under the cover of Second Secretary. Due to the fact agents cannot write books under their real names, Cornwell created the pen name John le Carré to publish under, using some of his own experiences in the office and field to create his stories and characters. He also pulled several aspects from his own life as material for his novels with some being considered semi-autobiographical.
His works were a direct repudiation of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, where espionage was depicted in a more fantastical way with exotic locations, heart-pounding action and beautiful women. Rather, le Carré focused on the difficulties interrogating defectors, running agents and executing months or years-long operations against enemy agencies. His first novel Call for the Dead, published in 1961, was a murder mystery involving the death of a possible spy for the Russians and introduced le Carré’s most famous character, George Smiley, a highly intelligent and soft-spoken individual. It was not until le Carré’s third novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1963 that he reached international acclaim with the novel’s dark, complex and relevant Cold War story.
Smiley would return again in one of le Carré’s most renowned novels, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which was inspired by the real-life events of British double agent Kim Philby, who was the reason Cornwell was forced to leave the service after Philby passed his name along to the Russians. The novel saw Smiley, now forcibly retired from the service, secretly brought back in to uncover a high-level double agent with their ranks. The novel spawned two sequels, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People which saw Smiley fight his Russian counterpart known only as Karla in a battle of wits, deduction and tradecraft.
Several of le Carré’s work has been adapted into film, chief among them Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as both a miniseries and feature film with Alec Guinness (Star Wars) and Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight) playing Smiley in the respective adaptations. Other novels that were adapted include The Constant Gardener, The Tailor of Panama, The Night Manager, A Most Wanted Man, Our Kind of Traitor and most recently The Little Drummer Girl with le Carré serving as an executive producer on many of them.
Over the course of his career le Carré wrote 25 novels, many of them becoming bestsellers. His most recent novel was Agent Running in the Field published last year, making it his final novel in a long and illustrious writing career.
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